Category Archives: Music criticism

Portland Symphony Plays a Memorable Fifth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Are there any undiscovered masterpieces? There may be, but if so, they are few and far between. The vast majority of music vanishes after its first performance, if any, and is relegated to the archives, where it languishes until “rediscovered,” only to vanish again.

These unoriginal musings were prompted by the performance at Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night of Erich Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major (Op. 35) by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody,

Korngold is best known as an Oscar-winning composer of movie music, although he began his career as a child prodigy turned composer in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic).

The orchestra gave the work its best effort, and the soloist, Christoph Koncz, knows film music inside and out, having played the hero in “The Red Violin.” Still, through the entire performance, I was picturing scenes from “Schindler’s List.”

Was it merely association of the composer with cinematography? Doesn’t all music conjure up images of some kind?

Not necessarily. (See Beethoven’s Fifth below.) Korngold, however, seems to be playing to the audience and calculating the effect of the scene, rather than letting the music speak for itself. One result is a lack of passion and self-assertiveness in the violin part.. It was beautifully played by Koncz, but its primary characteristic was a kind of wistful sweetness, pleasant enough, but wearing after a while.

I think it was Rilke who cautioned against journalism if one wanted to be a poet. The former rubs off too much on the latter, and the same thing seems to have happened to Korngold.

Tuesday’s program began with Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture, one of my favorite compositions, played a little too fast and without enough attention to its striking effects. It could be that opera and abstract music don’t mix either.

I have purposely left Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for last because nothing in the world remains to be said about it. It is a towering masterpiece that never loses its freshness, even after being played as a theme song on “Judge Judy.” One begins by admiring all the permutations of the “V” for Victory motif and ends in absolute awe and sometimes transfiguration.

As in all of its performances so far of the Beethoven cycle, the orchestra played above itself in every respect, earning a tumultuous standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

USM Singers Excel in “Coronation of Poppea”

“The Coronation of Poppea”
USM School of Music
Corthell Hall, Gorham Campus
April 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, “The Coronation of Poppea,” (1643) seems strangely relevant today—a dissolute court indulging in trivial, illicit affairs while Rome burns, a pre-eminent poet and philosopher “half in love with easeful death,” and an amoral, petulant child in charge of an empire. “So, Marcus, what else is new?”

Sunday afternoon’s production of the opera, by Ellen Chickering, with the entire cast, save one, undergraduate students at the USM School of Music, was remarkable. It was accompanied by Tina Davis, harpsichord and Scott Wheately, ritornello, who admirably filled the role of the baroque instruments indicated by the composer.

The plot involves the seduction of the Emperor Nero by Poppea, circa 100 AD, and her coronation after the disposal of Nero’s former wife, Ottavia. The thesis, stated in the prologue, is the triumph of the god, or goddess of love, Amor, over both fortune and virtue.

Nora Cronin, with fake wings and ability at Karate, was excellent as the mischievous Amor, who protects Poppea from an assassin, Ottone, her former lover, sent by Ottavia in a futile attempt to save her marriage. (Amor quickly disarms him of a dagger and threatens to call down the lightening.)

The role of Poppea, sung by Cathryn Mathews, was well matched by Rhiannon Vonder Haar as Nerone, with just enough difference in timbre and pitch to contrast delightfully in their final duet, the most famous of the opera. A good actor as well, she manages to seem ambiguous about the balance between love and ambition, gazing at the golden crown rather than her lover in the finale

Vonder Haar managed to portray the young Nero as a spoiled but sometimes affectionate brat, who turns in an instant against his tutor, Seneca, and has no compunction about setting his wife adrift in a wooden boat. Ottavia was sung with an admixture of sadness, desperation and the viciousness of a cornered rat by Helena Crothers-Villers.

The opera could equally be entitled “The Death of Seneca,” since it comes alive when Seneca, played by bass-baritone Matthew LaBerge, says farewell to his friends and disciples. Their trio—Teremy Garen, Logan MacDonald and Thomas Hanlon—is one of the high points of the opera.

LaBerge has a powerful, deep voice and the ability to hit the lowest of low notes on “for” in “The death I long for.” His pitch was a little off at times in the intricate ornaments Monteverdi loved, which become more difficult the further down the scale one goes. I would like to hear him as the Hermit in “Der Freischutz,” or anything by Mussorgsky.

The secondary roles were also well sung, often stealing the show. Rachel Shukan as Drusilla, Lady-in-Waiting to Ottavia and Ottone’s former lover, was radiant in her joyful aria welcoming Ottone back. As for aiding him in a little murder, no problem.

James Brown, as Amalta, Poppea’s frumpy nurse, was the epitome of practicality, trying to discourage her charge from overly ambitious plans. Their duet, when Poppea sings “Fighting for me, the God of Love,” over Amalta’s cautions, was another high point in the performance.

And one can’t forget Kiersten Curtis, playing the Goddess of Fortune in the prologue and the Goddess of Premonitions, Pallade, who appears to Seneca before his death, looking like Whistler’s “Study in White,” and singing the way one imagines a goddess would.

If I were producing “The Coronation of Poppea” tomorrow, I would try to cut the exposition a little, and would have it sung in Italian. Little of the meaning would be lost and the music would match the phrasing of the language more exactly. The English translation sometimes led to unintentional humor, or maybe it was just the youthful high spirits of the performers. They earned a standing ovation with flowers.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters”

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 23
by Christopher Hyda

It’s a good thing that the form of synesthesia which unites music with visual imagery is rare. Otherwise Leoš Janáček’s great String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) could not be performed in public, except perhaps with an “adults only” warning.

The work, lovingly rendered by the Portland String Quartet, April 23 at Woodfords Congregational Church, depicts, in four passionate movements, the affair of the aged composer with a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married.

In his always astute program notes, Will Herz suggests that the affair was platonic. If the music itself is any indication, I tend to doubt that (generally accepted) opinion.

The quartet is brimming with wondrous melodies, like Borodin’s but a bit harder to whistle. Most of them are derived from an intricate system of correspondences involving the names of the protagonists, their dates of birth, and numerous other numerical and linguistic sources. (I am indebted to composer Elliott Schwartz’ analysis of these in a lecture he gave in Brunswick a few years ago.)

Another characteristic of the music is the use of speech patterns and inflections to shape its phrases. In some of them one can almost make out the words, such as “the beautiful Madame so-and-so.” The example is in English, but I’m sure that anyone who knows the language(s) of the former Czechoslovakia would recognize many more.

One of my favorite passages in all opera is the speech-song uttered by the young frog at the conclusion of Janáček’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” The pantheism of that opera is also evident in the quartet, in which natural sounds, such as bird song, are employed to express the lovers’ most joyful moments.

All of these beauties and more were brought out by the quartet, in one of its most striking performances of the season. Its new cellist, Patrick Owen, was vital to the amorous depictions.

The program began with Stravinsky’s seven-minute Concertino for String Quartet (1920), generally conceded to be the first work of his “neoclassical” period. It was always an ill fit, and the Concertino is schizophrenic, driving rhythms contrasted with antique dance forms, lyrical passages written in dissonant harmonies, and so on. At the very end, Stravinsky seems actually to be flirting with a tonic resolution until he decides not to go there and ends up in the air.

The afternoon finished with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, plain vanilla after what had gone before, but a charming and light-hearted chaser for such strong drink. An enduring characteristic of the PSQ has been its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. In the first movement one could almost see Mendelssohn deciding what to do next with his theme. My note was: ”They show how it works.”

The final Presto con brio (alla tarantella) brought the audience to its feet.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Symphony Worth Standing For

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Apr. 12, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Audiences at Merrill Auditorium are notorious for giving standing ovations to solo performers, deserved or not, but not so much to symphonies. On Tuesday night, the custom was reversed.

Portland Symphony Orchestra principal hornist John Boden’s fine performance of the Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received sustained applause, but no cheers. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Op. 64) concluded with the most riotous, shouting ovation that I have heard in years.

The difference was guest conductor Stefan Vladar, who plays the orchestra like a giant Bösendorfer, (formerly the world’s largest and most prestigious piano). Vladar brings the passion,elegance and grace under pressure of a concert pianist to the role of conductor. His disciplined energy was evident from the first bars of the Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26.

Vladar transformed an atmospheric work that often seems like plain vanilla into an exciting panorama that mirrored the young composer’s fascination with the changing vistas of the rocky Scottish coast. The secret was dynamic contrasts in volume and texture, and from agitato to dolcissimo and back again, over a strong, precise rhythm.

As a veteran of many hard-fought battles between pianist and conductor, he is also very good at supporting a soloist, as shown by the fine balance of the Hindemith concerto. That composer’s unusual orchestration, such as horn against piccolo and the final susurrations and conversation among equals of the finale, were brought out effectively.

Following intermission, one felt a little anxious for Boden who, after a grueling concerto, returned for one of the most exposed horn solos in the repertoire, the opening of the andante cantabile in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Like everything else in this stellar performance, it went off without a hitch.

The symphony was a perfect testimonial, if one is needed, to the necessity of live music. From the beginning clarinets which, after the opening measures return as a delicate obligato to the principal theme, to Boden’s horn calls, there emerged a multitude of fine details that could never be heard in a recording. And the final, titanic clash between the evil “X” and the life force, would have blown every speaker in the house, if the volume could ever have been turned up that high.

Somewhat too exciting for a young girl…but worthy of a sustained uproar, every section of a great orchestra performing in an exalted state.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Valentine from the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There’s always a spike in the birthrate nine months after the dead of winter, but October 2016 might show more fecundity than usual, due to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s erotic tribute to Richard Strauss, Jan. 26 at Merrill Auditorium.

The program opened with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, part of the orchestra’s three-year Beethoven cycle. This was great music, well played, except for a bit of distraction at the opening of the Tempo di menuetto, but after intermission it was easy to see where the players’ hearts really lay.

Music director Robert Moody, after requesting no applause between selections, played four works by Strauss as if they were movements of a Romantic symphony, a conceit that worked quite well. The four, which portray various forms of eroticism, built up to a thunderous climax, with a brilliant performance of the final scene of “Salome,” sung passionately by soprano Patricia Racette.

The four were all closely related by Strauss’ unique sound–one of the marks of greatness–and by echoes of other works. The scoring of the final act of “Salome,” for example, recalls another image of despised love, in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but this time without the slightest hint of resignation. It is just Eros vs. Thanatos, and Thanatos wins, or does he? After Salome’s ferocious consummation, there’s nowhere else to go.

(Incidentally, I object to the slur on “Der Rosenkavalier” in the program notes. No, it isn’t Mozart, but something entirely different, and equally a work of genius.)

The first movement was the Prelude to Act. 1 of Strauss’ first opera, “Guntram,” (Op. 25). Influenced by Wagner and the ideal of the Teutonic knight, it has the sensual frisson of “Tristan und Isolde,” but better orchestrated and controlled.

The second, the love scene from “Feursnot,” is probably the world champion musical description of sex. H.L. Mencken would have proclaimed that it should not be played in polite company. It was perfectly (should I say lovingly?) rendered, down to the last high trumpet note.

Returning to the preliminaries was the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” (Op. 74), delightfully seductive, down to the falling whisper of the final garment. This is a work that used to be played more often. It runs counter to the modern predilection for instant gratification.

Racette was seductive, vicious, willful and wistful, clad in brown velvet, as Salome, triumphantly making love to the head of John the Baptist. Her voice, always clear and true, carried over the fortissimos of the orchestra effortlessly, and her portrayal of the various stages of emotion in the doomed heroine was mesmerizing. She and the orchestra received a well-deserved sanding ovation.

As Samuel Pepys used to say: “And now to bed.” Because “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos Offers Varied Program at USM

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos
Corthell Hall, USM Gorham
Jan. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos’ recital, Friday night at Corthell Hall, was doubly daring. She led off with two Preludes by contemporary composer Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) and continued with two of the most well-known works in the repertoire, inviting comparison with every great pianist of the 20th Century.

The Ruehr preludes—“…solitary figure at water’s edge…” and “…a storm approaches land…” (sic), were effective in an imagist way, the first characterized by dry treble sforzandos, like points of light, punctuating the overtones of lower chords, and the second by rapid rhythms and stormy passagework. Both reminded me of the “Poems for Piano” of Vincent Persichetti, with whom Ruehr studied.

In opening remarks, Antonacos suggested that the famous “Le Tombeau de Couperin” might have been influenced by Ravel’s fascination with “The Last Domain” by Alain Fournier, a chronicle of lost youth which may account for the deep underlying emotional content of what is supposed to be a compendium of early French music.

These emotions were explored in Antonacos’ technically flawless performance of what is one of the most difficult of piano scores, especially the unbelievable concluding Toccata. The fortissimo of the Menuet infuses that stately dance with all the tragedy of World War I.

If I had any quarrel at all with Friday night’s interpretation it would be with one of the pianist’s virtues, an almost metronomically precise rhythm.

This was a minor problem in the Ravel but took center stage in the performance of the Four Impromptus, D. 935 (better known as Opus 142) of Franz Schubert.

It was noticeable in No.1, in F Minor, not allowing the supremely lyrical theme of the work to breathe freely, but I was more interested in the unusually dark tone that Antonacos gave the piece, alluding to the tragedy of Schubert’s last years.

It was a disaster, however, in No. 2 in A-flat Major, a deceptively simple work that requires legato chords. To achieve this effect in perfect rhythm, it was necessary to slow down the tempo to a snail’s pace. That proved tedious, because of all of the repeats, and spoiled the melodic effect of the central passage.

The third Impromptu, variations on the “Rosamunde” theme, was more successful, due to the recognizable nature of the theme under all the rapid filagree, and turned out to be delightful in the uncharacteristic No. 4 in F Minor. This gypsy-like composition, with its dramatic effects, has virtually no melody at all. It seems to have come from another planet than the first three.

Friday’s recital was the first in the USM Faculty Concert series. On Feb. 26, John Boden, French horn, will be featured in “Horns Aplenty,” with pianist Martin Perry. and Maine horn players Scott Burdditt, Nina Miller and Sophie Flood.

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Music Appreciation 101

George Bernard Shaw, one of my inspirations as a music critic, once observed that music appreciation classes had it all backward. One has to love the music first, and the history, biography and musicology will follow out of a desire to know more about the object of affection. No one ever came to enjoy a Chopin etude because of its masterful enharmonic modulations.

Shaw was lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. exposed to the classics at an early age, before the development of a recording industry. That still works today, in some instances, but how is an adult to find his or her way into that rewarding and sometimes ecstatic world? All the guides to listening that I have read have done little to enhance my enjoyment and would be virtually useless to anyone looking for that first spark.

I thought of this ancient problem a while ago when the DaPonte String Quartet played the String Quartet No. 8 of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. This is certainly a “modern” work (1969), but even traditionalists in the audience told me how much they enjoyed it..

The tragic opening, played by the cello, draws one in immediately. After all, who doesn’t love a cello song, even if it includes some surprising bumps. The musical imagery of the rice harvest continues the fascination, with its blurring of the line between sound effects and written music. The driving rhythm propels the listener from bar to bar.

Then there is the almost subliminal remembrance of ancient work songs, followed by the shock of recognition when the cello song reappears and is repeated by the other instruments.

The way the quartet is organized and the development of the theme are straightforward enough to satisfy even a casual listener, without banality. It left me wanting to hear more.

The first prerequisite to real enjoyment of music is performance. Find the best performance, of anything, that you can. Even the greatest masterpieces are dead on arrival without an equivalent realization. If one doesn’t work, keep looking. You will be surprised. Sometimes an unknown orchestra and conductor capture the essence, at least for me, better than Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The second is repetition. The recording industry has a lot to answer for in its treatment of classical music, but it does offer the opportunity to hear a specific work again and again, which eventually, with luck, will lead to an “aha” moment; what psychologists call the relaxation response and others call shivers up and down the spine. The test of great music is the one Robert Graves suggested for poetry: it should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Another way in is rhythm, which is built into our bodies, and which everyone enjoys in one way or another. I first started listening to Bartok because of his complex and powerful rhythms, and eventually developed a taste for his modal style. This is also a good path from popular to classical.

Imagery is derided by musical purists, but it has led multitudes toward more abstract music. Think of “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “The Four Seasons,” or “La Mer,” all of which are great music in themselves.

Recognition, even the vaguest kind, can also lead to enjoyment, as in the work songs of the Sculthorpe quartet. We don’t know their specifics, but the style is universal. This also applies to hymns or marches, as in Charles Ives’ music, or references to popular tunes, as in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

An historical approach sometimes works, but there may be a chasm between a composer’s approachable work and his later output that requires a leap of faith. A good example is Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” and his later 12-tone music. Another is the early Chopin-like preludes of Scriabin and his later, monstrous tone poems.

Seeing how the mechanism works, as described in the listener’s guides, can also be fun in an intellectual way, but all too often I can’ t hear, in a live performance, what the writers are talking about.

Finally, there are various unmusical ways to acquire a love of music. Many students have used Mozart to improve their grades and come to love him. The greatest motive of all is snobbery. After all, classical music is an aristocratic form that requires a refined sensibility to appreciate. I really don’t care. Anything that gets people to attend concerts or listen to recordings is good — and may transform a life or two.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Won’t You Join the Dance? PSO Performs Del Tredici’s “Alice” Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 10, 2015

A story going around music schools a long time ago concerned the oriental potentate who was introduced to a symphony orchestra for the first time. When asked what he liked most on the program he said: “The first piece.” The orchestra repeated it, but the Sultan shook his head. “No, before that…”

He was referring to the tune-up , begun by the oboe on “A” 440, which composer David Del Tredici uses as a motif signifying the dull real world at the beginning and end of his “Alice” Symphony, played Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“Alice” is a quirky and marvelous work, but its musical intricacies, such as counterpoint among massed instruments and canons at the 16th, were obscured by a ballet based on the Lobster Quadrille.

I loved the ballet, brilliantly choreographed by Roberto Forleo and danced superbly by members of the Portland Ballet. It was even more erotically charged than the company’s “Carmina Burana,” with poses that seemed based on the paintings of Egon Schiele, Balthus and Dorothea Tanning.

The Queen of the Lobsters, danced by Erica Deisl, was a dominating presence, the lobsterman in yellow overalls, danced by Derek Clifford, subtly menacing, and Alice herself, played by Kaitlyn Hayes, the picture of gawky adolescence, torn between resistance and desire, as in “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

The problem with a ballet so well done is that it rivets the attention, making the subtle effects of the music sometimes go unnoticed. In that way, the symphony was the reverse of a ballet suite, such as the symphonic Prokofiev “Cinderella” Suite No. 1 (Op.107) that preceded it. Perhaps the answer would be to shorten the symphony into a ballet version.

That said, the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, did an excellent job with a difficult score, aided by soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, who is able to sing sweetly, bark like a yapping dog through a megaphone or read nonsense verses with equal aplomb. Del Tredici’s folk band, including mandolin and accordion, also worked effectively, as did an appropriately spooky Theremin.

The performance received a reluctant standing ovation from an audience that didn’t quite know what to make of it, gaining in applause as Del Tredici himself mounted the stage.

The program before intermission was equally good, with a powerful and atmospheric “Cinderella” Suite and an intimate, well-nuanced Haydn Symphony No. 69 in C Major (“Laudon”).

(In the program, the “Cinderella Suite” Pas de Châle (shawl dance) was mis-translated as “Cat’s Dance” (Pas de Chat?) which I mention only because it did sound like a cat dancing. exemplifying the power of suggestion.)